Party upset at Bush coverage

Ehrlich fund-raiser got undue attention, Democrats say

October 04, 2002|By David Folkenflik | David Folkenflik,SUN TELEVISION WRITER

Democratic party officials are crying foul over extensive coverage given Wednesday by the region's three largest television stations to President Bush as he spoke at a fund-raiser for the state's Republican nominee for governor. Station officials stood by their decisions, saying that, in the midst of a national debate about a war with Iraq, it was important to provide full coverage of the president's remarks.

WBAL-TV broadcast the fund-raiser live from the Inner Harbor Hyatt Regency ballroom for more than a half-hour, displacing its regularly scheduled evening newscasts. WJZ and WMAR carried the fund-raiser from just after 5:30 p.m. to 6:17 p.m. (WNUV covered Bush's remarks during its standard 6:30 p.m. newscast, while a late-running baseball game preempted WBFF's news.)

Bush warmly endorsed Republican Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. during the event, which raised $1.8 million for Ehrlich's bid for governor. The president also addressed the state of the economy and his push for a mandate to use force against Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein.

"That was free, unchallenged propaganda," said David Paulson, spokesman for the Maryland Democratic Party, who registered complaints with officials at all three stations. "This guy came to town for a political, partisan fund-raising event - not for a policy event."

"A visit of the president of the United States to Baltimore is certainly worthy of prominent television coverage," said Peter Hamm, a spokesman for Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, Ehrlich's Democratic opponent. "But there are limits. To go on for 30, 40, 45 minutes with continuing coverage is more than a little bit over the top."

News officials at all three stations said they had expected Bush's remarks, which lasted for 36 minutes, to be much shorter. But they largely defended their decisions, saying the heightened tensions over possible armed conflict in Iraq justified greater attention to the president's comments.

"With all of the world events going on - the war on terrorism, the debate in the Senate over the use of force in Iraq - we made the call to cover President Bush's speech," said Staci Feger-Childers, news director for WMAR. "It all of a sudden wasn't on the president's fund-raiser. It was about what he had to say."

Bush's appearance Wednesday night occurred during the station's evening newscasts, making it easy for the city's stations to decide to carry his remarks live. Last Thursday, by contrast, no major station broadcast live the NAACP debate between the two gubernatorial candidates.

Station executives privately said they were vexed that they had not been consulted more about the scheduling of the debate, which took place on one of the top-revenue nights for network television. That made it all but certain that the local affiliates would not air the event as it happened.

News editors said yesterday they had to weigh whether to treat Bush as the fund-raiser-in-chief or the commander-in-chief. "Sitting in this chair [Wednesday], it was a difficult decision-making process," said Margaret Cronan, news director at WBAL-TV. "I've never seen anything like it."

Over time, federal regulators have dropped requirements that broadcasters grant equal air time for candidates to rebut their opponents. But Townsend spokesman Hamm said the Democrat's campaign deserves significant attention devoted to comparable events on her behalf - such as the fund-raising visit in two weeks by former President Bill Clinton.

Officials at all three stations said they are delivering balanced coverage over time. Bush "certainly talked about much more than his endorsement of Congressman Ehrlich," said Gail Bending, news director of WJZ. Democratic party officials, she said, "must be frustrated, but that's their opinion. The president is the president."

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